UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

‘Remember that equity is about justice’

And that justice requires courage, collaboration and openness, speaker tells full house at UND’s DEI event

Darrick Smith speaks to a full house at UND’s first-ever Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Higher Education and Beyond conference on Thursday in the Memorial Union. Adam Kurtz/UND Today.

Along with hundreds of other guests, UND Today had the pleasure last week of sitting in on several expert presentations as part of the University’s first-ever DEI conference, The Future is Now: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Higher Education and Beyond.

We asked each of the four keynote speakers what they felt was the most important takeaway for their listeners. We share those thoughts below, plus a few more excerpts from their presentations.


Darrick Smith

Smith is an associate professor of Educational Leadership at the University of San Francisco and co-director and co-author of the School of Education’s Transformative School Leadership program.

“Equity is first and foremost about justice, and justice starts with the individual and the individuals holding themselves and their institutions accountable.”

Excerpts from Smith’s talk …

“It’s hard for people to understand racism when they never studied racism. It’s one of the most important things about U.S. history, yet we’re not required to take any classes on it at any point. You should find that very suspicious, right?

“Now understand what I’m saying here. I’m not saying that you have to call everybody a racist. I’m saying that you should be suspicious if your whole country was formed on racism and sexism with a lot of sprinkling of homophobia and Nativism. And you should be really suspicious if you have to learn French and calculus, but you never have to learn about the things that shaped your whole country.

“… So, when people talk about critical race theory and critical review, it’s just a sophisticated term for you to finally talk about the one thing that has shaped your whole country. That’s it. That’s it. … So, when we’re thinking about the idea of white supremacy, we’re not talking about you being racist. … Equity work is allied resistance. Equity work is about justice. We are in a history of a structure that has justified the exclusion of large swaths of our population, making our schools virtually incapable of adequately serving marginalized populations.”

“… Remember that equity is about justice. Justice starts with you. Justice requires courage and collaboration and an openness. We’re all going to make mistakes. Sometimes we don’t know enough to do it right the first time, but we have to understand and respect that from each other.

“… Somebody once asked me, ‘Do you identify as Afro-American?’ Sheesh, I haven’t heard Afro-American since ’84. I said, ‘No, I identify as African-American and Black.’ And the woman said, ‘Black? Oh … oh, Black is OK?’ I said, ‘Black is beautiful.’ And after that conversation my colleague was like, “Yo, that was crazy.”

“Well, how does she know if she don’t ask. I ain’t worried about that. Come on, man. We’re educators. You ask a question with respect, and I’m supposed to give you an answer. Don’t worry. I’m not going to judge you. I’m not going to be like, ‘Oh, you’re racist.’

“I’m not going to do that. I’m not stupid enough to do that. But we have to have the courage to take those risks. Sometimes you’re going to get embarrassed and think, ‘Oh my gosh, did I make a mistake?’ That’s OK. I heard once that part of education is being uncomfortable. And you’ll find that some of the people most resistant to being uncomfortable are educators, right?

“It’s OK to make a mistake. It’s OK to take the risk. But remember, you’re taking the risk not just for you, but for humanity, a better community, a better life. Have the courage to stand up to yourself and stand up to the people around you in whatever way you can. That’s how we grow.”

Suzanne Johnson

As president of Green River College in Washington, Johnson has focused on facilitating and supporting collaborative efforts to ensure equitable student outcomes.

“It’s about education. And I really think the Nelson Mandela quote is the key. ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’ In varying degrees (you need everyone with your organization to be on board with DEI to achieve that goal).

“We’re not all going to think the same. We’re not all going to feel the same, but in the context of how we treat each other each day we’re in our workplace, how we treat students in our offices or classrooms, there is a certain expectation or a uniform, common way in which we’re going to engage each other.

“How people want to live their lives in terms of their personal time is up to their politics and up to them. But while we’re on campus with each other and with our students, we have a certain set of expectations for how we’re going to engage.”

Suzanne Johnson. Adam Kurtz/UND Today.

Excerpts from Johnson’s talk …

“Nationally, over 90% of all tenured faculty are white. Over 70% of administrators are white. … Diversification has been slow and gradual. And with tenure, that will slow the trend. It would be great if we had unlimited funds. Then, we could hire as many faculty and diversify as rapidly as we financially could afford, right? But the change sometimes happens slowly.

“… And the way to success in terms of equity-mindedness doesn’t just mean bringing more and more people of color. That’s a piece of it, but it’s also for those of us who are leaving and those of us who have tenure and those of us who are going to work here for 30, 40 years. We all have to become responsible for this work.

“It’s called white allyship, which incidentally, you can never claim for yourself. You’ll know if you’re a white ally when people of color identify you that way — not when you identify yourself that way.

“… Bringing white voices to the issue of racial equality adds more legitimacy. It’s not seen as ‘Oh, that’s a Black issue, or that’s a Black and brown folks’ issue. Or that’s a minority issue.’ It’s a human condition issue, and we are all humans.

“… To expect that this work, and these conversations — especially to those of us who identify as white — are going to be comfortable and that it needs to be a safe space, I think is an unreasonable expectation. Racism is not comfortable, and racism has never been safe.

“Racism has generated murder. Why would we expect conversations and learning about racism and truth-telling to feel like that at all. I think it’s an unreasonable expectation. That doesn’t mean that we have to be brutal with each other, but you’ve got to lean into it, and you’ve got to get comfortable with the discomfort because again, racism is not safe. It never has been. And it’s certainly not comfortable for those who live lives as a result of racism.”

Genevieve Negron-Gonzales

Associate professor in the School of Education and affiliate faculty in the Migration Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.

“I know this is a really varied group. Some might be really familiar with this issue and for others, it might be the first introduction to the issue of higher education and undocumented students.

“My main takeaway is that I hope folks feel clear about the struggles that undocumented students face in pursuit of higher education and that they see there are actionable things that all of us can do to try to help remove those barriers for undocumented students.”

Genevieve Negron-Gonzales. UND Today.

Excerpts from Negron-Gonzales’ talk …

“I’ve spent 17 years of my life working with undocumented students as a teacher, as an ally, as an advocate, as a researcher and as an activist. I take every opportunity I can to speak about undocumented students because I find that there’s still a stigma and a lot of shame and silence around this issue.

“I think this is really rooted in the idea that for so many years, undocumented young people were told to keep quiet. The undocumented students who had college aspirations and who were at the top of their high school class were told, ‘Look, tone it down, stay under the radar, just try not to be detected and see if you can make it through.’

“And the residual consequence of that is that many undocumented young people are carrying around this sort of institutional silence, this institutional shame about their status. And I think one of the consequences for the rest of us is that often people forget that undocumented students exist in every state across the country. They don’t just exist over there or at other universities, not just in California and Texas, but also in states like Maine and North Dakota and Wisconsin.

“The reality is that not only are there undocumented students in every state across the country, but you also can’t tell who the undocumented student is by looking at them. One of my mentors used to say, ‘You always have to live really loudly because you never know who might be looking for you.’ And that’s the sort of approach I like to take and, truthfully, the kind of approach all of us need to take.

“Any time we’re in a classroom teaching students, we need to assume there are undocumented students in that room. Any time we’re talking to a group of students about filling out the FAFSA for college aid, we need to assume there are undocumented students in that group. And not only are they there, they are waiting to be invited in.”

“… Educate yourself. Yes, it’s complicated, but it’s worth it to find out the rules of your institution and the laws in your state so you’re not the one in the Admissions Office who’s turning away students. … Examine your little sphere of influence … show your support. Invite others in to join that work. You don’t have to be that lone voice. We know there are colleagues who share that sense of responsibility in making sure all of our students have access to education. … And get involved. Those of us in higher education, who know the transformative power of learning and education, who know that access to higher education has the potential to change the trajectory of entire families. Those of us in the position to be able to see that on a daily basis have an ethical obligation to ensure all young people have that right.”

Katie Spencer

Spencer is a licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist and assistant professor at the Institute for Sexual and Gender Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School and co-medical director at M Health Fairview Comprehensive Gender Care Services.

“Let’s engage in the practice of radical imagination. We can’t just be critical. We also have to think about change and how we’re going to be practical about that in the future.”

Katie Spencer. Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Excerpts from Spencer’s talk …

“What are some of the hopeful things, what are ways that we can be different? It’s not just enough to identify. I do think that’s part of diversity, equity and inclusion because we need to have language for what’s happening around us. But then you need to move into action and alternative ways of relating and ways to be.

“And I think sometimes this is true in academia that we’re really good for criticizing or being critical, but we’re not as good at visioning or radical vision. … One of the founding values of that is centering the voices of the most marginalized. When you center the voices of the most marginalized, rather than working from the center of dominant cultures — whiteness, straight men, things that have been centered as the most important — when you center from the most marginalized, everyone benefits, and everyone’s needs get met.

“… Our society will not be freed until everyone has human rights. And I don’t think we talk about human rights enough. You know, we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion … we can include, but does everyone have human rights? You know, ‘Great, you invited me to the party, but do I have equality with everyone here? Do you respect my overall humanity?’

“DEI is not my favorite term because I think it can obscure sometimes. People need to live full, self-determined lives and what that means to them. We don’t talk enough about that. … Nobody’s living a single-issue life. You embody and inhabit a lot of different roles in your life, a lot of different cultural and social vocations. So, there’s no single-issue struggle. We’re all in this together.

“And when I’m in solidarity with you, and we’re working together, that benefits me, and it benefits our whole community. So, thinking about white supremacy culture, there was the individualism of that. We’re a very individualistic culture, and we need to move more toward who is our community? Who are we in relationship with, and we’re in relationship with LGBTQ people. So we are LGBTQ people, and we’re in a relationship with them, and we all need to have human rights. I think you should applaud that.”